At 11, he was over six feet tall. At 14, he joined AC Milan. At 16, he debuted for the first team. At 17, he'd made 50 appearances in Serie A. Now at 18, the goalkeeper is the future of Italian football, and our best teenager in the world.
On one side of the Passeggiata Archeologica, not far from Naples, are the ruins of Villa San Marco. The villa was likely the country pad of emperor Claudius’s second-in-command, Narcissus. His Berlusconian political scheming finally got him executed, but before that he’d liked his sport – so much so that he had his pillared bathroom decorated with boxers and wrestlers. The villa overlooked the sea before Mount Vesuvius erupted, forging a new coastline to the south of Pompeii.
Just across the road, pinched in between the Passeggiata Archeologica and the motorway flyover, is an Astroturf pitch, a clubroom cluttered with trophies and, in a scrap yard, table football. The Lattari Mountains of the Amalfi Coast rise up behind one goal; the volcano looms beyond the other.
It’s October 2015, and five kids at this local soccer school are doing goalkeeper training. The coach is a guest, an old boy: Bologna’s Antonio Mirante is one of three keepers to go from the (misleadingly named) Asd Club Napoli in Castellammare di Stabia, all the way up to Serie A.
These boys were about to gain a new role model. He’s almost within touching distance of their age, if seemingly twice their height. Gianluigi Donnarumma, at just 16 years and eight months, made his debut for Milan against Sassuolo on October 25, 2015, becoming the youngest goalkeeper ever to start a match in Serie A.
He had already sat on the substitutes’ bench against Cesena back in February 2015, three days before his 16th birthday. With goalkeeping coach Alfredo Magni raving about the prodigy, the Rossoneri obtained the medical dispensation that was necessary to confirm that the 6ft 5in hulk was able to compete with adults.
A man at 16
Even at 16 years old he looked like a 30-year-old man. He had all the attributes to become a champion
Boss Pippo Inzaghi had considered starting Donnarumma at Atalanta in Milan’s meaningless last game of that season, but baulked despite privately knowing that his own tenure was up. Yet new coach Sinisa Mihajlovic had the balls to write the teenager’s name down on the team-sheet – and he did it under the gaze of the vultures, after the side had leaked 14 goals in eight league games to begin 2015/16.
Mihajlovic phoned Milan veteran keeper Christian Abbiati, now on the verge of retirement and warming the bench behind Diego Lopez, to ask if he thought Donnarumma was ready to replace the faltering Spanish keeper. The answer was an emphatic “yes” – to the surprise of no one who had trained Donnarumma.
“Are you kidding?” says Bruno Tedino, his Italy Under-17 coach, when FourFourTwo asks if the debut was unexpected. “Absolutely not! Even at 16 years old he looked like a 30-year-old man. He had all the attributes to become a champion. He showed he had his head screwed on. I congratulate all those who took a chance on him.”
Donnarumma was a little more wide-eyed. Mihajlovic told him the news in the Milanello dressing room the day before the game.
“It was an incredible emotion,” he said. “I hadn't thought he would play me. I’m normally one to keep my emotions in, but that day it was difficult. After training I called up my parents straightaway and they left Castellammare to come over and see me. It was a strange sensation in the coach on the way to the stadium. Then I ran out, touched the crossbar and we were off.